The year was 1987. The place, London. A nine year old Bingo Little had successfully nagged his mother into renting a movie he’d had his eye on for some time. Its title? The Monster Squad. The tale of a gang of pre-pubescent boys (and one little sister) uniting to take on a pack of Universal’s most heinous monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Werewolf and the Mummy. Think the Goonies meets Ghostbusters, the stuff of celluloid dreams.
Watched with a close and enduring pal, it proved to be a cinematic awakening for young Little, and remained lodged in the memory for years thereafter.
Flash forward nearly ten years. Despite his best efforts, Little has never managed to lay hands on a copy of the movie. No VHS release, no rental availability, no hope. It is nearly 1am the night before his History A- level, and he’s just set down his revision notes and is preparing to get some shut eye ahead of the exam. He flicks on the TV for a couple of minutes, just to wind down, and is immediately confronted by the opening scene of The Monster Squad. Unable to resist its siren song, he stays up into the wee small hours reliving its majesty in full. What price higher education when you can watch a small boy stuff dynamite in the Wolfman’s pants and shove him out a window?
Flash forward again, this time to the present day. It’s been two decades since Little has seen The Monster Squad. Still no UK release. All attempts to import a copy thwarted. OK, the whole thing is available on YouTube, but that just felt like cheating. For Little, a true scholar of schlock cinema, the film has become something of a white whale. There is a glimmer of hope, however. Somehow, seemingly against all odds, Monster Squad has become something of an Internet sensation, gaining a cult audience and spawning at least one fan site (the now sadly defunct “Wolf Nards”).
A little background here. Monster Squad was released by Tristar, on a (then considerable) budget of $12 million. Hampered by a frankly insane marketing campaign (“Wanted” posters of the monsters, featuring their crimes – including, in the case of the Mummy “statutory wrap” – perfect for a kids feature) and also a ludicrous 15 age certificate, it stayed in cinemas for just a fortnight and returned a meagre $3.8m at the box office. A bomb, in short, and particularly when measured against the colossal success of The Goonies just two years earlier.
Still, with time it found its audience. In 2006 the movie website Ain’t It Cool News arranged two screenings with the original cast, and found queues waiting round the block to get in. Since that time, the cast have sporadically flown around the globe hosting further screenings. On Saturday night, their schedule finally hit London. And so, I found myself dragging a close friend to the mighty Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Square, to witness with our adult eyes the splendour of the Monster Squad, followed by a cast Q&A, and with the entire event filmed for a forthcoming documentary. What follows is a short exegesis of that experience.
The first thing to say is that the line to get into the movie went round the block and then some. I had not remotely anticipated this. For 30 years this film has been an in-joke between myself and the one other human being I know who had actually seen it (sadly living abroad and unable to attend, but kept abreast of the evening via the wonders of Whatsapp). To discover with one’s own eyes that it actually does exist, and that there are others who share the love…. well, let’s just say I may have finally found my people, and they were largely clad in fingerless leather gloves and “Stephen King Rules” t-shirts. But there were also kids. Actual children, here and now in 2017, in Monster Squad tshirts, clutching the soundtrack and attempting (in vain) to gain entrance. What madness was this?
My research for the evening had already revealed something surprising. Not only was Liam Neeson inches from being cast as Dracula, but the movie was the first screenplay by none other than Shane Black, who would go on to write Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and numerous others. Who knew?
So, the movie begins, and I’m looking at my pal and wondering if we’re not about to both endure 85 minutes (YES! 85 minutes – the signature length of a truly great movie) of shame and boredom. And then something happens. The movie turns out to be absolutely frigging great. It’s not just a nostalgia thing. Obviously, a supportive audience helps, but it’s not just that. It’s funny, and knowing and – let’s face it – a great idea for a flick. In fact, post Stranger Things it feels incredibly “now” – in many ways its jocular offbeat tone, coupled with classic horror beats, is the template for this Summer’s ragingly successful “IT” remake, and you just wonder what a modern cinema audience might have made of it. As one of the actors noted in the Q&A after – it was a movie that needed the Internet, before the Internet existed.
The script is terrific, full of memorable lines (I shall post below the tremendous “Wolfman got gnards” sequence that remains in many ways the film’s signature piece and which my friend and I quoted for years, long after that fateful first screening) and moments. It never sags, and it has a great ending. Plus, a sequence in which Van Helsing himself emerges from the void and gives the kids a full on thumbs up. It’s precisely as fun as a movie about a gang of children fighting monsters should be – which is very fun indeed.
Watching the film evoked for me a veritable Proustian rush. Whole sequences came flooding back to me, and I realised that – at the time – this truly was one of the most exciting things I’d ever seen. Just the idea that adults could make something so knowing, so self-referential, so totally in love with pop culture. All that stuff comes as standard these days, to the point where it’s almost dull, but in 1987 it was properly novel, and it reflected absolutely where my head was at – awash with superheroes and myths, old movies and books. Monster Squad brought all that back to me in spades, and reminded me just how good a time it’s possible to have watching a trashy movie. It’s a massive part of how I came to fall in love with cinema.
So anyway, this is a post to commend to all of you The Monster Squad. It’s a film that deserves a wider audience. It’s Halloween next week and I know many of us will be looking for something to watch that night (we’re doing Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host” round mine if any of you fancy it).
I submit for your consideration The Monster Squad. If you’re the sort of person who wants to watch Dracula repeatedly light sticks of dynamite with his mind, or Frankenstein squashed into a kid’s clubhouse being taught to say “bogus”, or to witness the world’s coolest and most badass 14 year old smoke his way through the film (jesus, but Rudy seemed sophisticated when I first saw this), this movie is for you. Sadly, you’ll need to either have better connects than I do or otherwise YouTube it, but either way I recommend this highly. Movie industry: get your act together and let me pay you some more money to own a copy of this glorious thing.
Also, kudos as ever to the PCC, who put on a fantastic event and handed us all Monster Squad business cards on the way out. Oh, and double kudos the actual nine year old Monster Squad fan who couldn’t be allowed into the movie, but who came in at the end for the Q&A. You are officially cooler than me – enjoy being a kid. Enjoy it forever.